Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Wild Girls by Pat Murphy

Author Pat Murphy in California (photo by Eileen Gunn)

The Wild Girls by Pat Murphy is set in 1972 and reads like a children’s classic from that time. This is life before the internet, video games and supervised playtime. Summer days are as simple as peanut butter on crackers with lemonade. Unstructured time leads to adventures.

The narrator is a sweet 12-year-old with the old-fashioned name of Joan. She has just moved to a Californian suburb with her stay-at-home mother, a censorious father and a grumpy older brother. Their family life is painfully ordinary but not very happy.

Author Pat Murphy at age 10

My only criticism of this engaging young adult novel is that the protagonist is a bit too good and thoughtful to ring true. Joan always thinks first and says or writes the right thing. I find tweens to be more of a mixed bag. Joan is still a sympathetic character.

In the neighborhood woods Joan meets a girl who calls herself the Queen of Foxes, a fabulous character. Fox’s home life is anything but ordinary. She lives alone with her father, Gus, in a rundown house overflowing with books and dirty dishes. Instead of a garden, there’s a cast-iron bathtub resting in weeds beside stacks of hubcaps. There is no driveway, but there is a motorcycle.

Pat Murphy photo by David Wright

Gus looks “a little scarry” to Joan:

. . . a burly man wearing blue jeans and a black T-shirt with sleeves torn off . . . . He didn’t look like anyone’s father. He needed a shave. He had three silver studs in his left ear. His dark hair was tied back with a rubber band. On his right shoulder was a tattoo, an elaborate pattern of spiraling black lines [a Celtic symbol.]

Gus is a science fiction author. He gives Joan (now nicknamed Newt) a notebook and encourages her to write. He leaves the girls to play wild in the woods and to invent stories (photo by Pat Murphy.) I love Gus!

Then summer ends, and the girls must go to school. Joan gets A’s and makes Girl Scout friends, but Fox disappears into herself. Fox is now the meek and small Sarah getting C’s, and the other girls think she’s strange. Joan remains a loyal friend to Fox and encourages her to enter a story writing contest together without telling their irritating English teacher.

When their story wins, the girls are invited into a summer writing program at Berkeley with other “loose nut” kids. Through writing the girls learn how to confront the demons at home. Fox’s mother abandoned her, and Joan’s parents are having marital problems. The story becomes darker but creativity shines to spiritual enlightenment.

Pat Murphy taking “a Hollywood moment” (photo by David Wright)

Creative writing teacher Verla Valonte doles out gems like:

Anything that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And later on you can use it in a story.

Any liar can make things up. But a good writer is more than a clever liar. A good writer tells the truth by telling lies.


The Wild Girls is a book that helps the young reader to discover her inner writer. The simple prose and storyline are designed for imaginative girls aged 10-13, but I very much enjoyed it too. One of my author friends, Charlotte Agell, recommended The Wild Girls for my daughter. In the acknowledgments we discovered that Pat Murphy and I share an agent, Jean Naggar. What a small world!

It was the perfect book for my daughter, who writes stories for fun and keeps a secret journal. She wants to be a writer when she grows up. In our woods she plays with neighborhood girls. They sleep in our tree house and draw war paint on their faces with lipstick, just like The Wild Girls. That’s my wild girl up in our tree house last weekend, wearing shorts and no jacket despite the snow.

Here’s my eleven-year-old daughter’s review:

I like The Wild Girls because it is very unique. Young adult books don’t always have to be about snobby, rich girls so this was a nice change. I love the characters and how she describes the city in California. I like Fox because she is outrageous, funny and kind. I loved the scene where Fox and Newt paint their faces with mud. I really like the plot and storyline and would recommend this book for 11 and up.

Pat writes very well about what she knows. In the 1970s Pat moved from Connecticut to California at age eleven where she still resides. She went on to become the author of several award winning science fiction/fantasy novels and stories. Pat is a writing teacher too. And holds a black belt in karate! The Wild Girls is Pat’s first young adult (YA) novel, and it made the American Library Association Notable Book List as well as won the Christopher Award (ages 10-12) for books published in 2008.

Oscar the Grouch gives Pat Murphy the Christopher Award for
The Wild Girls
(photo by David Wright)

My daughter and I interviewed author Pat Murphy:

1. Do you have anyone in your life like Fox?

I have several friends who have personality traits in common with Fox – most notably her curiosity, her willingness to explore, her adventurous spirit, her impatience with rules. I worked for many years at the Exploratorium, San Francisco’s museum of science, art, and human perception. The museum encourages the development of folks who are, in many ways, like Fox.

2. What made you decide to become a writer?

That’s a question with many answers. I’ll give you one of them.

I write to figure out what happens in the stories I tell myself. My first experience as a writer didn’t involve writing. As a child, when bored in church (while listening to masses conducted in Latin), I would run through the stories I’d read and rewrite them in my imagination. Often, I’d find a place for myself in the story. (In my version of Tarzan, the ape man was accompanied by a skinny fourth-grade girl). It was an elaborate and directed sort of daydreaming.

In college, when I first started creating original stories and writing them down, I realized that reimagining stories as a child helped me figure things out. For me, a story is a way of understanding and interpreting the world. When I get a story right in my mind, it’s both satisfying and enlightening.

That’s one reason I’m a writer. (Another one is: I get to explore secret worlds that intrigue, delight, and frighten me. But that’s another story.)

3. What was your favorite childrens/YA book as a kid and what is one now?

I have too many favorites to choose just one. I love (and loved) books in which kids find a way into a secret world: C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, all the works of Edward Eager (but most particularly Half Magic), E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It, Evelyn Sibley Lampman’s City Under the Back Steps, Elizabeth Marie Pope’s The Sherwood Ring. I love the juxtaposition of the real world and the fantastic world that’s just steps away. But I also love (and loved) books that have no overt fantasy element but convey a sense of magical possibilities: The Secret Garden and The Little Princess (both by Frances Hodgson Burnett) are two in that category. And of course I love books that take place in fantastic worlds: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Lloyd Alexander’s work. So many possibilities! I’ll stop there – but I could certainly go on!

4. You are an award winning science fiction/fantasy author, why did you switch genres to write YA?

I wanted to write a book that would have made a big difference to me when I was a young adult. Sharyn November, my editor at Viking, gave me that opportunity when she asked me if I wanted to write a YA book.

I had written the beginning of The Wild Girls as a short story that ended when Joan and Fox put on war paint and read their story. But I knew that there was a lot more to tell about these two girls. Sharyn agreed – so I wrote the novel to find out what happened after the reading. (As I mentioned in question 2, I often write to find out what happened.)

5. What is different about writing for tweens?

The main difference is one of focus: In The Wild Girls, I focus on issues that were important to me at that age. I’m also more careful about my language, choosing vocabulary that’s age appropriate.

6. Will you be writing more YA, and what is your next project?

Absolutely! I had a great time (and I learned a lot about myself) while writing The Wild Girls. My next project is another book about Joan and Fox. A friend of Joan’s mom is a travel writer and she’s working on an article about traveling with children. So she needs to “borrow a child” for an adventurous trip to Mexico. This novel is told (mostly) in the form of letters between Joan and Fox.

I also write and edit books for Klutz. My latest project was Invasion of the Bristlepots featuring alien robot toothbrushes.

Pat Murphy hiking in the mountains near Bishop, CA
(photo by Eileen Gunn)


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@Barrie Summy

44 comments:

David Cranmer said...

This isn't my nomal fare but I certainly enjoyed the review and great pics. I try to remember titles like these when I'm buying for the kids in the family. Much thanks.

tina said...

Good book review. Sounds like Pat will inspire many a young lady to take up writing.

♥ bfs~"Mimi" ♥ said...

This was a great post and fabulous pictures. Really appreciated it!

"When" I ever get back to writing, it will again be nonfiction, because that (and poetry) is where I am the most comfortable.

I write because I want to help figure out the why of things. It wasn't until I was forced to write an autobiography five years ago, that I clearly saw the patterns in my life. I was able then to understand and forgive myself for mistakes I had made.

Whoops! Too deep for so early in the morning!

A Cuban In London said...

'Summer days are as simple as peanut butter on crackers with lemonade.'

Take away the peanut butter and I fit that description nicely, but in urban Havana.

I agree with your view that sometimes writers allow their characters to become too good to be credible. Or caricaturesque. I am having the same problem with Updike's 'Terrorist'. As a writer yourself, do you think that at some point during the act of creating your dramatis personae, you feel afraid of apportioning too much negative traits to a particular person? That maybe you went too far?

I loved your daughter's review. It is so different from an adult's worry about tropes and grammar (even edited by mum! :-D). It was refreshing. I look forward to future ones.

Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Tessa said...

Lovely to relive those balmy days of childhood when the sun always shone and it was your imagination that took you to places of limitless possibilities. Both you and your daughter have given us a peep into the world of which Pat Murphy writes - thank you for that, and for the gorgeous photographs. I love the one of your tomboy(?) daughter on the deck of her treehouse. Now that is the perfect place to free up the imagination - lovely!

D.A. Riser said...

I loved the book review, especially the interview. You always capture such good insights in your posts (not to mention wonderful photographs!).

Keri Mikulski said...

Great post!! And sounds like a fabulous book.

Thanks for the recommendation. :) And I loved your daughter's review. :)

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

I think my daughter and I would love this book. And I adore how your daughter participated in this book review too. I like her style! Especially this: Young adult books don’t always have to be about snobby, rich girls so this was a nice change

And wow--the treehouse!!!!

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

Sarah
Thanks for the post and pictures! I enjoyed the review and interview by you and your daughter. I will be reading the book myself. I feel we can learn so much about life from any book at any age.
Tracy

Dave King said...

Not my cup of tea I would have thought, but your review is good enough to make me wonder...

kaye said...

nice review and I liked getting to know the author. What an opportunity for your daughter to interview her

Kathy Holmes said...

Refreshing to find a YA not about rich, snobby girls - that gets so old. I suspect young readers will agree because those who read can probably relate. This sounds wonderful. Well done.

troutbirder said...

Wonderful & fascinating review. I felt very fortunate to have several 8th grade girls who had this kind of writing talent. And they were fortunate enough to have my teaching partner (the English teacher)who encouraged their creativity and sent them to adolescent writing classes at nearby Winona State University.

Cheffie-Mom said...

Great post! Great interview! The tree house is wonderful!

Sarah Laurence said...

David, good one to get for the kids.

Tina, Pat has already inspired my daughter.

Mimi, nonfiction makes sense after blogging. Writing does help one know oneself.

ACIL, my English husband can’t stand peanut butter either. It’s hard to get the right balance in a character – likable but not too good or interesting but not too evil. I gave up on Terrorist and never finished it. A child’s response to book is more personal and character based. It was great to have my daughter’s input.

Tessa, you’ve captured the spirit of this book in your comment. My daughter defies category – not a tomboy nor a girly girl. Certainly a bit of a wild girl. She likes to make her own statements. That picture captures her.

DA, thank you. Pat brought a lot to this post, including photographs. Add my daughter’s help and this was an easy week.

Keri, it was fun to share the book and the review with my daughter. As a YA author, you should definitely read this one. I’d be interested in hearing your take on it.

JAPRA, I think you’d enjoy sharing this book with your daughter too. The tree house was a fun family project to build. I envy my kids for growing up with one.

Tracy, I enjoy reading outside of my age genre if the writing is good. We were all kids once. I’d be interested in reading your take on this book.

Dave, you aren’t the target demographic but neither am I. I will get back to reviewing adult fiction next week, but I enjoy reading along with my daughter occasionally. She’s too old for a read aloud bedtime story so sharing some special books is a good way to stay connected.

Kaye, Pat did a wonderful job of answering our questions. It’s fun that my daughter, the aspiring writer, already feels like authors are real people.

Kathy, it is good book. Thank you.

Troutbirder, cheers for your teaching partner. Those girls must have loved that experience. Inspirational teachers who think outside the box make all the difference.

Cheffie, thank you! The tree house was as much fun to build with lots of neighbors and family helping out. Like this post, it was a team effort.

walk2write said...

Sarah, I think it's wonderful that you included your daughter's comments and her questions for the author. You're already laying the groundwork for her that will make the author's road ahead so much easier to navigate.

Sarah Laurence said...

w2w, it was wonderful that my daughter was willing to help me. I hope I am helping her too because the road to becoming an author isn’t an easy one, although the journey is fun.

Charlotte Agell said...

I will share this lovely blog with my those of my students (also colleagues) who are also Wild Girls fans!

Sarah Laurence said...

Charlotte, thanks for recommending this book to my daughter.

Elizabeth said...

An excellent review.
Sounds exactly the sort of thing that would have appealed to me at that age.
Thanks for introducing an author who is new to me.

Sarah Laurence said...

Elizabeth, I wish I’d read this book at my daughter’s age although I enjoyed it now. Pat's other novels are for adults if you are into sci fi and fantasy.

San Diego Momma said...

I love YA fiction and this book's premise sounds up my alley.

You gave an insightful and multidimensional review. Your daughter's input was a nice touch!

Also- love the pics.

Sarah Laurence said...

SDM, thanks and welcome to my blog. Pat’s friends and family take credit for most of this week’s photos.

Barrie said...

I can definitely name a couple of nieces who would enjoy this book. What a wonderful all-encompassing review....from the photos to mother-daughter reviews to an interview...whew!!

Cynthia said...

Sarah, I read this review with interest. Sometimes I think it would be great to have a do-over childhood so I could have that first experience with books again-and all of the books that are available now... Having young children was a bit like that...we read and discovered many books together.

Your daughter is delightful in the tree house and I enjoyed reading her perspective on the book. I don't think I would be bothered by the tweens insight and "goodness." It's possible. I think I imagine myself as that kind of young girl. My parents were also having difficulity. Maybe young people tone down their difficult selves as a possible reaction to that situation? Just spectulating!

My own daughter's will is showing now at 17, but when she was younger, she was so compassionate and considerate. (I want her to fight for herself so a bit of will is a good thing.) Thanks again for the review, sharing the photos, the interview and your own daughters input.

Secret Aging Man (SAM) said...

We found that our children were a challenge to parent when they went through their tweens. On the other hand, their imaginations soared higher and their own personalities developed more during this phase of life, than any other time.

Donna said...

What a fun book review! I especially liked your daughter's input on the book (which sounds like a good one). What a great idea to do that.

Sarahlynn said...

You're right. I liked this!

A Cuban In London said...

Sarah, I completely understand your position about 'Terrorist'. I have to admit that it is not one of my favourite books by Updike so far, and I still have a few pages to go. Should finish it tonight or tomorrow.

Updike is a too keen on description and this loses the reader sometimes. True, in the final pages he ups the ante and the atmosphere of suspense he creates is masterfully handled (so far). But why spend two or three pages describing a window? Just an example.

Anyway, my review of his novel will definitely focus on his obsession with description and secondly this book will give me the perfect excuse to address, in my own experimental way, the differences between female and male writers, generically speaking. I perceive the female writer as trying to make sense of the mundane and ordinary and turning that everyday life into art, whether it be visual art or performing art or literature. Male writers usually come across as attempting to capture that precious sentence, phrase or scene that will catapult them into the the literary stratosphere, a lofty ambition if there ever was one, but a trait that sometimes leaves me feeling short-changed.

Well, this was just a quick moment wrested away from the kids whilst they are brushing their teeth. Will be back in a while.

Greetings from London.

Sarah Laurence said...

Barrie, The Wild Girls is definitely a good gift book. I can’t imagine disliking it. Thanks!

Cynthia, I feel like raising kids lets the part of us that didn’t grow up mature. That’s a really interesting observation about kids in a troubled family. Perhaps some act up while others act down. As faults go, being too good is not a bad one.

SAM, welcome to my blog and say hi to W2W. You brought a very good points about this stage of development. I’m enjoying these tween years warts and all.

Donna, it is fun to have my daughter’s help and great to have so many nice comments for her to read. Hopefully this will encourage her to contribute again. Both of my kids helped me review Charlotte Agell’s Shift (link in sidebar.)

Sarahlyn, welcome!

ACIL, you can’t get more male than Updike. I don’t deserve an opinion on Terrorist since I never finished it. I did read all of Rabbit Run and found it fascinating for its now outdated views on sex and marriage. Updike does write well, but his voice doesn’t speak to me. I’m looking forward to your Terrorist review. Your thorough reviews often make me feel like I’ve read the book. My People of the Book review won’t be up until April 15. This is a book that deserves to be read slowly. I think it would appeal to both male and female readers but is more male in approach, according to your criteria. Interesting thoughts on gender and literary style – I’d like to hear more. I think the best writers speak to both men and women. I enjoy the gender/ethnic/age/geographic diversity in our blog community.

lakeviewer said...

I enjoyed both your take and your daughter's. I wonder how many young readers can empathize with characters who lived in another era.

Sarah Laurence said...

Lakeviewer, thanks! The 70’s didn’t turn off my daughter and a good writer can draw you into her world. It also looks like that decade is getting a new revival.

Alyssa Goodnight said...

What an awesome montage of review material! Loved it--and the book sounds great! (Also really envious of the tree house...) :)

Sarah Laurence said...

Alyssa, thank you! I enjoyed your book review too.

Stacy Nyikos said...

Great review and interview. I love the interviews!

Sarah Laurence said...

Stacy, thanks to Pat.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

What a wonderful review. I especially loved reading about the book from the viewpoint of your daughter. And it was great to place the author's photographs throughout, especially her childhood one. Thanks, Sarah!

Sarah Laurence said...

Pamela, it was fun to see the author at the age of the readers.

Rose said...

Great review, Sarah! This sounds like a good book for tweens, and I agree with your daughter's assessment that it's nice to read a book that isn't about "rich, snobby girls." I'm sure that many young girls can relate to the issues presented in the novel; who knows, maybe it will inspire some of them to use writing as an outlet?

I always enjoy reading what the author has to say about her writing; thanks for including such an in-depth interview!

I'm hoping I can join in again next month.

Sarah Laurence said...

Thanks, Rose! I hope you do join us next month.

david mcmahon said...

Great interview and review, Sarah.

Hana Njau-Okolo said...

I especially enjoyed your daughter's down-to-earth, intelligent review, "...books don't always have to be about snobby girls..." You have done well, she is enjoying a lovely childhood.

What a small world indeed that you share an agent! Fabulous photographs as always.

Sarah Laurence said...

David, thanks!

Hana, welcome to my blog and thank you! I’m hoping my daughter will collaborate on other YA reviews.

Madison said...

I am in the 7th grade, and i just discovered this book. I read it in about 3 days. It is one of my favorite books. I love the time period is set back in time, and how they go on stage with face paint. You make everything so creative. I am looking forward to more books from you! :) I love your books keep it up.
~ Madison